New immigration laws may debilitate Georgia?s largest industry

Georgia’s agricultural industry has taken a big hit due to new immigration laws. Agriculture, which is a $69 billion industry, remains the state’s largest source of revenue.

Since the implementation of the state’s immigration law, HB 87, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association has estimated that agriculture in the state has undergone a 40 percent labor shortage. Shorthanded farmers are preparing a range of different solutions to the issue, including alternating crops and reducing the amount of acres they grow on. Farmers approximate that they have lost more than $10 million in crops that were unable to be harvested or were harvested too late, due to lack of workers.

2012 may witness further setbacks for the state. Starting January 1, all employers with more than 500 employees will have to verify the eligibility of every worker, according to the new E-Verify procedures administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, mandated by HB 87.

In an effort to better inform U.S. law and policy makers of the implications of different immigration laws, the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform was organized. Started in 2001, the organization has members from the fruit and vegetable industries, nurseries, dairies and livestock vendors from across the United States, according to the agricultural news source Agri-View.

According to Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the coalition and son of a Belgian immigrant, the coalition’s combined estimates from the various industries it represents indicate that up to 70 percent of the agricultural workers in the country weren’t born in the United States. Regelbrugge believes laws like H.B. 87 are naive and will ultimately cripple U.S. agriculture without resolving the political disputes surrounding immigration.

“It would’ve been easier if we had put a workable system in place 15 years ago than to try to deal with it now because the problem has grown in its size, scale and complexity as time has passed,” Regelbrugge said in an interview with Agri-View.